As a steady stream of taxi cabs, hotel shuttles, and cars with tinted windows chauffeured corporate officials and elected state legislators into the Phoenix Westin Kierland Resort and Spa for the kickoff of a secretive retreat this week, a theatrical group of protesters demonstrated outside with glittery signs, costumes, and a puppet show, calling the event the antithesis of democracy and the epitome of political corruption.
The three-day conference is hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council — better known as ALEC – and brings together big-name corporations and elected officials to discuss and design a national legislative agenda.
The anti-ALEC crowd notes that big corporations like Arizona Public Service and Exxon-Mobil wine and dine government officials at ALEC conferences while talking policy and voting on model legislation to be introduced into state legislatures around the country.
Much of ALEC’s funding comes from Koch Industries and other Koch brothers projects, like Americans for Prosperity, yet the organization touts itself as a nonprofit providing a “constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues.”
Critics say ALEC simply is a right-wing lobbying group and “bill mill” pumping out pro-corporate and conservative model legislation.
The group has been around since 1973 and has been behind numerous bills to reduce corporate regulation, strengthen voter suppression efforts, promote gun rights, and decrease the power of unions. Arizona’s anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070 bill was modeled on ALEC legislation, as was Florida’s “stand your ground” bill, made famous after George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
ALEC is behind legislation “to fill private prisons [and] they’ve been responsible for much of the privatization of schools and the killing of public pensions and clean-energy [efforts],” says Progress Now Arizona's Julie Erfle, who helped organize protests this week.
“But nobody knows about it because the media doesn’t have the ability to cover it. You have legislators openly participating in a lobbying scheme, and no one is calling them out for it.
“We’re talking about creating legislation behind closed doors, [and] corporations having unbelievable access to our legislators,” she adds. “I mean, if that’s not corruption, I don’t know what is.”
Few specifics are known about this year’s winter conference agenda, although according to PR Watch (a project of the Center for Media and Democracy), much of the conference concerns pushing an “anti-environmental” climate-change-denying agenda.
Breakout sessions, called task forces, will also discuss legislation aimed at dismantling President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, increasing fossil fuel subsidies, and undermining the alternative-energy industries. “When people hear about it, they say, ‘That’s outrageous,’” explains Lisa Graves, a former lawyer who now works for the Center for Media and Democracy.
Graves has investigated ALEC for years and was featured in the documentary The United States of ALEC. She says trying to uncover what happens behind closed doors at any ALEC gathering is incredibly challenging — so her group relies primarily on 3,000-plus public-records requests they file annually and on whistle-blowers who secretly feed them information.
“Basically, the corporations have their lobbyists write bills, and they pass [them] to ALEC,” she says. Then, the model legislation is voted on in conferences like the one taking place this week – corporations and legislators have equal say in whether they want ALEC to adopt [legislation] as official policy and promote it.
“It’s very rare for anyone to reject a law because they’re precooked . . . ALEC then gives it to lawmakers, and lawmakers introduce the bill into state legislatures.”
It's not even entirely clear which state legislators are members of ALEC because the organization isn't listed as a lobbying group, so legislators are not required to report any gifts, trips, or meetings they have with the corporate members of the organization. (The Center for Media and Democracy published what is likely an incomplete list of ALEC legislators in Arizona.)
“It is the definition of oligarchy,” one protester said during Wednesday’s demonstration.
“Buy a legislator” and “legislators for sale,” others yelled.
Protesters held large, sparkly signs: “ALEC: Affluent lobbyists enriching corporations” and “ALEC: Oligarchy in process.” But, by far, the biggest spectacle of the day was the “puppet show.”
Two men in fancy suits – one with a top hat, the other with a cigar — stood atop ladders holding strings connected to the hands and feet of a third man, who was wearing a Governor Doug Ducey face mask.
(Ducey, who is widely regarded by those on the left as an ALEC/Koch brothers political puppet, gave the keynote speech at the conference's opening reception.)
The two men pulled on the strings, making “Ducey” move like a marionette.
“Doug Ducey, the finest politician money can buy,” one said.
“Invest in America, buy a politician,” said the other.
They continued pulling on the strings while “Ducey” waved Monopoly money around:
“Dark money is good for Arizona.”
“Let’s build more private prisons.”
“Let’s privatize everything.”
“Our kids don’t need education, education will trickle down. More prisons, less education.”
“In Wall Street we trust.”
At one point, “Ducey” mistakenly dropped a few of the fake bills he held in his hand:
“Don’t worry, that’s trickle down economics,” one of the puppeteers said without missing a beat.
"Money is speech – that should be a law,” replied the other.
Dozens of Phoenix police officers watched from the edges of the hotel property, but as it became clear that the comical protest was peaceful, much of the force left the area.
Not long after the puppet show, with the conference inside well under way, the protesters wrapped up their demonstration. Another big protest is scheduled for Friday when Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson is scheduled to speak.
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Watch Bill Moyer's documentary, United States of ALEC: